Literature and Life
The Jordan River, also known as the River Jordan, is a river in southwestern Asia, in the Middle East region. It lies in a structural depression and has the lowest elevation of any river in the world. Flowing southward from its sources in the mountainous area where Israel, Syria and Lebanon meet, the Jordan River passes through the Sea of Galilee and ends in the Dead Sea. The Jordan River’s geology and climate have contributed to its role in history as a political boundary and in biblical history writing as a site of community formation.
I’ve told this story before but in writing about one of my favorite authors, I must tell it again. The first paragraph was not unknown to me so imagine my surprise when I see River Jordan on the spine of a book incorrectly shelved in the general reference, religious, philosophy and psychology sections of a local library. Clever marketing, I thought; a bit too clever, in fact. To pretend a religious or philosophical author’s name was the same as a well-known religious landmark was really rather trite. I was in a hurry, however, so instead of taking the time to read the back cover ir inside flap of the book, I added it to my pile and proceeded to the self-checkout.
Later the next day I looked at the book I had no intention of reading and realized two things. First, it was a book on prayer, a subject near and dear to me. Secondly, the author’s name really was River Jordan. River Jordan began her writing career as a playwright where her original works were produced, including “Mama Jewels: Tales from Mullet Creek”, ‘Soul, Rhythm and Blues”, and “Virga”. Her first novel, “The Gin Girl” (Livingston Press, 2003), garnered high praise as “This author writes with a hard bitten confidence comparable to Ernest Hemingway. And yet, in the Southern tradition of William Faulkner, she can knit together sentences that can take your breath.” Kirkus Reviews described her second novel, “The Messenger of Magnolia Street”, as “a beautifully written atmospheric tale.” It was applauded as “a tale of wonder” by Southern Living, who chose the novel as their Selects feature for March 2006, and described by other reviewers as “a riveting, magical mystery” and “a remarkable book.” Her third novel, “Saints In Limbo”, has been painted by some of the finest fiction voices of today as “a lyrical and relentlessly beautiful book,” and “a wise, funny, joyful and deadly serious book, written with a poet’s multilayered sense of metaphor and meter and a page-turning sense of urgency,” and reported by Paste Magazine as “a southern gothic masterpiece.” Her fourth novel, The Miracle of Mercy Land, was published on September 7, 2010.
It was her first non-fiction work, “Praying for Strangers, An Adventure of the Human Spirit” that I had picked up. It was published in 2011 and was a book that was happenstance and one River Jordan never intended to ever write. This acclaimed author teaches and speaks around the country on “The Power of Story”, and produces and hosts the radio show Clearstory Radio from Nashville. She can often be found traveling the back roads of America with her husband and their Great Pyrenees lap dog.
I felt a bit ashamed I had doubted her name (and yes, it really is her name) and was surprised that she lived less than two hours from me and had the same breed of dog that I did. We also had one other thing in common – we both had sons in the military of this country. Hers had been deployed to a war zone about the time mine returned from the same area. Her non-fiction book begins with the week before her son was to leave and the feelings she described I knew all too well. However, she had very little acquaintance with praying for strangers while I had spent the past eight years doing just that. Still, I felt compelled to read the book, more a diary than a novel or autobiography.
E. M. Bounds describes prayer as “power and strength, a power and strength that influences God, and is most salutary, widespread, and marvelous in its gracious benefits to man. Prayer influences God. The ability of God to do for man is the measure of the possibility of prayer.” We tend to overlook what prayer does for the person doing the praying, though. River Jordan addresses both in this book as she embarks upon her journey as the parent of a child walking into war.
There are many different types of wars we face, especially as parents. First it is colic, then perhaps first day of school anxiety. Regrettably, some parents must face their child having a life-threatening illness or developing an unhealthy addiction. Sometimes it is peer pressure that creates the war zone with destructive behaviors or ill-planned escapes becoming the enemy. Long before our children are of an age to defend their country, we as parents have faced many battles. Every person confronts life’s issues but it seems to be most difficult when it is our children doing so once they have “grown up”. The concerns and fears of our hearts grow also and never are diminished in spite of how accomplished we may believe our children to be.
River Jordan has an encounter with a stranger, recognizing the pain of another similar to her own and offers to pray for this person. To be certain she knows saying those words will not instantly change anything. They are not a magic chant. She is somewhat surprised, though, to see the calm they seem to give this stranger. Within a few days, another incident occurs and again, she sees the power that offering to pray for a stranger can create.
It is very seldom – okay, never – that I will claim an author as one of my favorites when I have only read one book by said author, especially if said book is diametrically opposed to the rest of the volume of their writings. And yet, it is that very fact that made me claim River Jordan as a favorite. I have given this book to others, had a book club read it, shared it on this blog in years past, and still at least once a year reread it. I could not leave her out of any list of influential writers.
Trying to get River Jordan to pin down a favorite writer, though, is difficult. “Honey, I was raised by the tribe of Eeyore. I can worry about anything and everything….I want to read something that sets my soul on fire. I want to read words that tell me what it was to have been human and to set my feet on this planet for even just a little while. I want to carry some truth away about this life that I didn’t recognize before. To connect to another person’s life in the process. To cry, fight, laugh, love, and live more passionately than when I first turned that page. I want the story to carry me somewhere wonderful whether it’s South America, or a riverboat, or even if it’s only a backyard on a summer night. And it doesn’t matter if it’s wonderful contemporary voices southern and otherwise, or the older voices of Mark Twain, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Flannery O’Conner, Harper Lee – the list goes on into eternity. Just give me that great story. Carry me away. The words can be soft or sharp, biting or butter, I just want the passion of the writer to be so intense that the words are like a white, hot light on the page.”
River Jordan has stated that “it is her deep belief that through our stories we discover the truth of our common ground and are able to celebrate our humanity, working together toward living at our highest potential.” I hope you read “Praying with Strangers” but more importantly, I just you read. By the way, River Jordan’s latest book, “Confessions of An American Mystic, Stories of Faith and Fiction” ( Jericho Books, Hachette) will arrive later this year. Literature and life continue to reflect one another.